what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

In Praise of Journalists

A “journalistic scrum” has become a sign of the times – reflecting globalization; the 24 hours new cycle; the merging of news-collecting with the entertainment industry; technological change; and the growth in the journalistic profession.
A recently-issued book by a German journalist of the 1920s and 1930s has had me musing about the journalistic craft down the ages…….

We all know about George Orwell who established his reputation in the late 1930s with Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) and “The Road to Wigan Pier” (1937). 
But the Hungarian, Arthur Koestler, had been a prolific journalist for the Berlin-based Ullstein press since the early 30s before he burst on the British scene with his Darkness at Noon (1940) reflecting the totalitarianism of the times. Ernest Hemingway also started in European journalism in the 20s and wrote up his experiences of the Spanish Civil War - but was always the novellist. Martha Gellhorn made her name as a war correspondent (see her pieces here); was married to Hemingway for 8 years - and was the better journalist of the two

Victor Serge led one of the most amazing lives as an anarchist in France, Belgium and Russia in the first part of the 20th century.  Memoirs of a Revolutionary is perhaps his most famous bit of writing (published posthumously in French in 1951) but he wrote extensively from the early 1920s about his experiences in Russia from 1919 (where he was initially hired by Maxim Gorky)

Vassily Grossman is another writer who mixed journalism and novels – becoming famous in Russia for his work as a journalist at the Soviet front (A Writer at War gave us a taste of this in 2005) but having his best work “Life and Fate” – modelled on “War and Peace” - banned and smuggled out of the country to be published 20 years after his death only in 1985

Joseph Roth was a less politically involved journalist – but a master of the feuilleton, a peculiar form of journalism that was especially popular in European newspapers in the early 20th century. Roth described it as “saying true things on half a page” and considered it “as important as politics are to the newspaper. And to the reader it’s vastly more important.” In his confident, controversial way, he added,
“What people pick up the newspaper for is me. Not the parliamentary report. Not the lead article. Not the foreign news….I don’t write ‘witty columns.’ I paint the portrait of the age.”
I am currently enjoying his The Hotel Years  which brings together 64 of Roth’s feuilletons, nearly half of which were published in the Frankfurter Zeitung – of which he was a star reporter in the 20s and 30s. Each of these little essays is a pleasure to read, and regarded collectively they present an invaluable portrait of life in Europe between the two World Wars.

And this we owe to a few brilliant translators …. In this particular case the poet, critic, and translator Michael Hofmann. Without him, the reader of English would hardly know Roth at all. The Hotel Years is the 14th of Roth’s books that he has translated. (Among the others are The Radetzky March, commonly considered Roth’s masterpiece, and Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters, a significant work of scholarship that serves as an essential companion to all of Roth’s other writing.
Hofmann’s commentary is insightful and especially helpful in establishing a context for Roth’s life and work. In the introduction to What I Saw — a collection of feuilletons written in Berlin during the years of the Weimar Republic, and the first book of Roth’s journalism to be published in English — Hofmann describes Roth as “a maximalist of the short form.” In these reports from Berlin, as in the pieces collected in The Hotel Years, “What is small is inevitably made to seem vast, and vast things are shrunk into a witty perspective.” The literary journal The Millions has a good review of the book -

"Roth is perpetually engaging, whether he is decrying the Third Reich, criticizing clich├ęd notions of Russia, enumerating the unpleasant realities of travel, or simply commenting on the quirks of a hotel cook. They are works of satire, driven by Roth’s bristling sense of irony and his unsparing eye for detail. He was a keen observer of everyday life, and he had an ingenious knack for capturing a person or place with a few brief sentences. His essays reveal an obsession with physical descriptions and a fascination with the habits and appearances of the people he encountered, as demonstrated in “The Dapper Traveler:”
 The traveler is clad in a discreet gray, set off by an exquisite iridescent purple tie. With complacent attention he examines his feet, his leather shoes, and the fine knots in the broad laces. He stretches out his legs in the compartment, both arms are casually on the arm rests to either side. Before long the gray traveler pulls out his mirror again, and brushes his dense, black parted hair with his fingers, in the way one might apply a feather duster to a kickshaw. Then he burrows in his case, and various useful items come to light: a leather key-holder, a pair of nail scissors, a packet of cigarettes, a little silk handkerchief and a bottle of eau de cologne.
So much attention and enthusiasm are given to these kinds of details that it often seems as though Roth is creating a world rather than describing the one that already exists. Taken out of context, in fact, many of the pieces in The Hotel Years could pass as fiction. Some resemble sketches for novels, travel notes, diary entries. It is remarkable that they were published in newspapers — not because they are uninteresting or poorly written, but because they are so different from the kind of work one expects from a journalist.In an essay on the German city of Magdeburg, Roth explains his writing in the following way:
"What can I do, apart from writing about individuals I meet by chance, setting down what greets my eyes and ears, and selecting from them as I see fit? The describing of singularities within this profusion may be the least deceptive; the chance thing, plucked from a tangle of others, may most easily make for order. I have seen this and that; I have tried to write about what stuck in my senses and my memory."
"There is, of course, a transitory nature to this kind of writing. It is short and often very specific, tightly bound to the time and place in which it was written. Roth travelled across Europe, lived in hotels, and wrote essays that were inspired by what he refers to as “the great blessing of being a stranger.”
He is whimsical and frivolous at times, prone to exaggeration, and indulgent of superficial details that fail to leave the reader with any lasting impressions. But many of his essays endure, as mere ephemera do not.

"……..For Roth, writing was not merely a way to make a living, it was a way of life. When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, he left the country and never returned. 
“Very few observers anywhere in the world seem to have understood what the Third Reich’s burning of books, the expulsion of Jewish writers, and all its other crazy assaults on the intellect actually mean,” he wrote at the time. “Let me say it loud and clear: The European mind is capitulating. It is capitulating out of weakness, out of sloth, out of apathy, out of lack of imagination…”
Six years later, at the age of 44, Roth died in Paris from the effects of alcoholism. It is frustrating to think of what he might have written had he lived longer, but not because the body of work that he left behind is lacking. As the present publication of “The Hotel Years” proves, much of Roth’s writing has been neglected. Although he has come to be remembered mostly for his novels, his journalism is equally as impressive".

Who is it, I wonder, who best embodies this sort of work these days? 
There have always been war correspondents – although I was fascinated by this article which explains why no british journalists were on the Waterloo battlefield 200 years ago. Robert Fisk is for me the greatest of these - with his The Great War for Civilisation - the conquest of the Middle East.

As the writing craft has become the subject of university course in recent decades, its practice has perhaps become more precious – although this collection does give a very positive flavour of what has been produced in recent years.
Travelogues have always been popular but globalization giving an added zest in recent decades..…with another interesting trend (at least in the UK) being for novelists such as James Meek, John Lanchester and Andrew Greig to give extensive treatment to political and economic matters….

For my money, three names stick out from the rest of the bunchChris Hitchins despite his apostasy, was a powerful and extraordinarily well-read writer…..Clive James’s wit may sometimes be a bit forced (not least in his television coverage) but the range of his (European) reading and analysis has rarely been bettered, with Cultural Amnesia as the jewel in his crown,
Geert Mak is my final choice – not only for his tour de force In Europe – travels through the 20th Century; but for the creative focus he used on his village (in “An Island in Time – the biography of a village”); his city (“Amsterdam – a brief life of the city”) and his country “The Century of my Father”)

 A Joseph Roth Resource

A Michael Hoffman resource

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Thinking Institutionally

A little book has been engaging my thoughts this past week – On Thinking Institutionally – published a decade ago by Hugh Heclo, now a retired American political scientist with form for an interest both in political institutions and in European aspects of political culture. I remember his name vividly from the 1970s from the book he wrote jointly with that great doyen of political analysis (and of the budgetary process) Aaron Wildavsky – The Private Government of Public Money

Heclo’s book looks at our loss of respect for institutions. Way back in the 60s, Penguin books had published a series of popular paperbacks with the series title “What’s Wrong with…….?” – in which virtually all British institutions were subjected to a ruthless critique. When I was in Germany for a couple of months in 2013, I noticed a similar rash of titles. And France has been flooded in recent years by the literature on its doom…..

I like a good critique like anyone else – but there comes a point when critical analysis of an institution become so overwhelming as to threaten the possibility of ever trusting that entity ever again. A few years ago, we seemed to reach that point in Britain when the “expenses scandal” hit the political class – was it a coincidence that this happened just when the global economic crisis required some determined political action?
For whatever reason, trust in our institutions – public and private – has sunk to an all-time low. This is the issue with which Heclo’s book starts – indeed he gives us a 5 page spread which itemises the scandals affecting the public, private and even NGO sectors in the last 40-50 years – arguing that mass communications and our interconnectedness exacerbate the public impact of such events. 
The past half-century has been most unkind to those discrete cohering entities, both formal and informal, that "represent inheritances of valued purpose with attendant rules and moral obligations." Today, people almost universally denigrate institutions, including those of which they are members.
Attacks on institutions come from our hyper-democratic politics but stem from the Enlightenment with its unshakeable confidence in human reason; its subsequent obsessive focus on the self; and, latterly, its belief that an institution has no value beyond that which an individual can squeeze from it for personal gain.
In the last 60 years our education system  has designated institutions as, at best, annoying encumbrances and, at worst, oppressive tools of the past. Students are taught to believe what they like and express themselves as they see fit. Even people understood to be conservatives—at least in the way we conceptualize political ideology today—assail institutions. Free market economics places a premium on self-interest and assumes institutions stifle innovation and entrepreneurship.
 But institutions provide reference points in an uncertain world. They tie us to the past and present; furnish personal assistance; and institutionalize trust. They give our lives purpose and, therefore, the kind of self-satisfaction that only the wholesale rejection of them is supposed to provide.
How, then, do we protect and promote them? Heclo says that first and foremost we must learn to think institutionally. This is very different from thinking about institutions as scholars do. It is not an objective and intellectual exercise. It is a more participatory and intuitive one. To think institutionally you need a "particular sensitivity "to or an "appreciative viewpoint" of institutions.
To be more specific, the exercise moves our focus away from the self and towards a recognition of our debts and obligations to others. To think institutionally is to do something much more than provide individuals with incentives to be part of and promote institutions. It calls on them to modify their behavior. In this way, Heclo challenges rational choice's assumptions about institutional maintenance vigorously. 

Heclo argues that acting institutionally has three components. The first, "profession," involves learning and respecting a body of knowledge and aspiring to a particular level of conduct.
The second, "office," is a sense of duty that compels an individual to accomplish considerably more for the institution than a minimal check-list of tasks enumerated within a kind of job description. 

Finally, there is "stewardship." Here Heclo is getting at the notion of fiduciary responsibility. The individual essentially takes the decisions of past members on trust, acts in the interests of present and future members, and stands accountable for his actions.

I have a lot of sympathy for this line of argument – against “the quick buck”…. instant gratification….. tomorrow’s headlines…..we need cultures which respect partnership, timescales for investment and the idea of “stewardship” which Robert Greenleaf tried, unsuccessfully, to cultivate…..The quotation, indeed, which graces the first page of my Dispatches to the post-capitalist generation is from Dwight Eisenhower’s last address in 1960 
We . . . must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.

Heclo’s book, I concede, is in the tradition of Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott and tended to attract the attention of clerics and university administrators – some of whom produced this interesting symposium 
Thinking institutionally is a lonely pursuit. Its practitioners are unappreciated and considered naive. They expect to be taken advantage of by those who care nothing for institutions, only for themselves. But that does not mean we should not do it.

Readers wanting a sense of Heclo’s writing style are directed to page 750 of The Oxford Handbook of Political Institutions (the link gives the entire “Hand”book!) where Heclo has a short essay on the topic.